Who needs a pumpkin carriage ride to the ball when you could surf celestial webs instead? Certainly not Cinderella, if Alexei Ratmansky’s 2013 production of Prokofiev's ballet for the Australian Ballet is anything to go by. On tour to London, the company presents Cinderella after Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake last week. With these two works, the Australian Ballet asserts not just its commitment to the classical ballet tradition but also its desire to push the form into the future, with fresh, modern and exciting productions. And who better than the Russian Master to revisit fairy tales!

Leanne Stojmenov (Leanne) © Jeff Busby
Leanne Stojmenov (Leanne)
© Jeff Busby

In true Ratmansky style, this Cinderella is a visual feast. Sinuous, spiralling and expansive choreography flirts with off-axis balance and contemporary use of space, bodies bending, pushing, pulling, altogether defying the uprightness of the classical idiom. Airy, flowing, completely free, Ratmansky’s movement could so clearly mould into a stunning neoclassical abstract mood work, yet, within the context of his story ballets, the malleable choreography becomes so much more, suddenly expressive, curious, and sometimes audacious.

The characters of the fairy tale (which really needs no further introduction) contrast each other well. Cinderella (Leanne Stojmenov) is reserved and shy, her dance graceful, her landings soft. Stojmenov slowly grows into the role as the evening progresses, after starting Act I with what felt like a ‘well rehearsed’ performance’. Gradually, she abandons herself into the story (in good keeping with the Fairy Godmother’s magical timing) and morphs into a luminescent and open-hearted Cinderella. Ratmansky’s prince (Kevin Jackson) is a little plastic, to say the least: shiny white suit, slicked hair, show-off (perfectly executed) technique, and a seductive stance suggest a flashy, self absorbed personality. It’s not all show though, as the prince reveals himself to be quite the romantic, embarking on a beautifully rendered journey across land and sea to find his Cinderella.

Ingrid Gow (Skinny) and Eloise Fryer (Dumpy) © Kate Longley
Ingrid Gow (Skinny) and Eloise Fryer (Dumpy)
© Kate Longley

Whilst performed well, their romance isn’t the stuff of great passions, and the relative flatness of the fairy tale’s central romantic affair (love at first sight, prince saves woman from her sorrowful despair, they will live happily ever after) does not alone a rounded ballet make. It’s the trio of Stepmother and stepsisters Dumpy and Skinny which seals the work’s success. Deliberately gauche (but not grotesque), comical and inadequate, they punctuate the ballet with outbursts of excellent entertainment. Eloise Fryer (Dumpy) and Ingrid Gow (Skinny) bite into their roles with confidence and subtility to great effect. They are brilliantly led by Amy Harris who lit the stage with an assured and engaging performance as the Stepmother, a role she created back in 2013. Far from the stereotype of the evil character embodied by the Disney movie, she presents the woman as a seductive, devious, calculating, but not altogether insensitive ‘other woman’.

If the dance drives the plot, it’s also greatly supported throughout by Jerome Kaplan’s stunning designs. Sleek and elegant courting valses make way for surrealist farandoles, interiors contrast with Magritte-inspired landscapes featuring moonlit palatial gardens, painterly green foliage and vivacious colours. The choice of a surrealist theme is suited, as incongruous, absurd elements (12 immaculately trimmed shrubs flip into huge metronomes at the stroke of midnight, a Dali-esque lusciously pink sofa in the shape of lips and a stool with heeled human legs) come to disturb the ‘orderly’ design of the tableaux.

Ingrid Gow (Skinny), Amy Harris (Stepmother) and Eloise Fryer (Dumpy) © Elliott Franks
Ingrid Gow (Skinny), Amy Harris (Stepmother) and Eloise Fryer (Dumpy)
© Elliott Franks

As in his Nutcracker for American Ballet Theatre (2010), Ratmansky here uses a vibrant spectrum of colour to highlight the contrasts and nuances of the tale. Gorgeous Schiaparelli-like costumes, notably those of the sisters (adorned with flashy pumpkin-shaped tutu skirts, quirky hair-dos and schoolgirl-like socks tucked in their pointe shoes – the ultimate dancer fashion faux pas) and the sensual frocks of the seductress Stepmother slap touches of couture onto an already sleek production.

The solar system divertissement brought on by the fairy Godmother (Jasmin Durham), which replaces Ratmansky’s ‘seasons’ in his production of Cinderella for the Mariinsky (2002) feels outstretched, and superfluous, as did the temptation scenes, despite good performances, notably from Robyn Hendricks and Vivienne Wong.

The company is strong (though lines and footwork could be neater in places). Great energy emanates from the ensemble, who commit fully to this demanding work.